February 20, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #280: Netsanet Tesfay

I'm pleased to share my interview with Netsanet Tesfay about her sophomore illustrated children's book The Gabi That Girma Wore, written by Fasika Adefris and Sara Holly Ackerman. This book offers such a unique glimpse into a culture not often reflected in children's books, and it was such an honor to talk to Netsanet about her process and personal connection to the story. Enjoy!

About the book:
This illustrated tale pays tribute to the Gabi--a traditional Ethiopian cloth that is used to celebrate both community and culture. From the tiny seed to the fluffy white cotton, from the steady hands of the farmer to the swift fingers of the weaver, from the busy shopkeeper, to a gift for a loved one, follow the journey of the Gabi that Girma wore.

Check out the endpapers:

Let's talk Netsanet Tesfay!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of The Gabi That Girma Wore? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Fasika Adefris and Sara Holly Ackerman’s text?

NT: This picture book tells the story of a unique Ethiopian blanket and pays tribute to the culture and community, while teaching readers the art of textile making. I became the illustrator for The Gabi That Girma Wore because the team I worked with values authentic storytelling that encompasses the experiences of both the author and the illustrator. Since my art practice is influenced by my Ethiopian culture, the editor and the authors felt that this opportunity and partnership was very fitting. One of the authors discovered me online, and the rest is history.

Upon reading the script for the first time, a flood of emotions gushed through my body, taking me back to my younger days and filling me up with tears. I began reminiscing about my childhood and the community where I grew up. So many images came to mind, like the first time I met my grandfather with his gabi draped on his shoulders, cuddling with cousins during the cold rainy season, community gatherings and holidays. There are endless wonderful memories attached to the gabi. As a collector and a creative who appreciates the aesthetics and beautiful nature of the blanket, flashes of pattern, bold colors palettes, lines and shapes ran across my mind. These images of intricate designs coupled with my cultural emotional attachment deeply resonated with me and became the sources of my inspiration that I couldn’t wait to illustrate.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

NT: For this particular assignment as an Ethiopian American artist, the most difficult challenge I faced was mostly in the pressure I would put on myself to authentically represent my culture in drawings through fresh and creative aesthetics, while bringing to life a story of celebration. As much as this picture book is about culture and community, it is also about textile and the art of how it’s made. With a common subject matters such as this, I value the importance of staying accurate and informing readers of valuable information that they may be introduced to them for the first time. Spending hours researching, compiling information and looking at images is one of my favorite parts of the picture book making process. The reward of illustrating a book based on a topic with a cultural significance is the joy you gain from sharing a piece of your identity and celebrating the connections your readers make. It is heartwarming to know that through my illustrations, I am able to give the reader a glimpse of culture and transport them on a distant journey to a place where beautiful things like gabi can happen.

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to illustrating children’s books?

NT: Through my home-based art practice, Kokeb Studio, I enjoy collaborating and working on various assignments. These range from painting little free libraries for a non-profit to creating a large mural in a public art setting. I work with individuals, small businesses as well as corporate clients like Target. I also enjoy participating in gallery shows, teaching art at a local boutique art school and volunteering my creative time to my community on my off days. Although I am a busy mother of two small kids, being an artist keeps me even busier. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

NT: I illustrated The Gabi That Girma Wore digitally in Procreate. I enjoy creating children’s book digitally because it allows me to make adjustments and corrections more easily, resulting in a quicker turnaround. I appreciate the convenience of using digital tools that mimic traditional mediums and the ability to scan in and manipulate my own original designs. This way, I can create art digitally without compromising my creative integrity. The portability of my iPad also allows me to juggle multiple projects at the same time, which is a great perk!

Timelapse video of Netsanet Tesfay creating an interior spread

I have illustrated two books far. The second book, Our World: Ethiopia with Barefoot Books, is a board book aimed at a younger audience. While my picture book-making process was similar to The Gabi That Girma Wore, in this book, keeping things intentionally simplified at a basic level was key. As an artist who indulgence in layers of colors, patterns, shapes, and all the things that artist love, this creative challenge kept me on my toes, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

NT: I’ve been busy creating art for others lately, but I’m genuinely looking forward to setting aside time for personal work and achieving a better balance. I’m excited to experiment, play, and produce something original using traditional mediums and tools. Currently, I’m working on an assignment for a client who is self-publishing a music book featuring Ethiopian children’s songs. It’s a project that resonates deeply with me, as I grew up singing and playing music from the same cultural background. Additionally, I’m preparing artwork for an open call juried exhibition at a local gallery, with hopes of participating in the show this summer.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

NT: This is such a tough question because I am a fan of so many brilliant illustrators. If I had to narrow it down to a couple, I would be thrilled if David Roberts or Sandra Dieckmann illustrated my picture book autobiography. They each have their own unique styles that I love and admire. While I can get lost in Sandra‘s luscious spreads, saturated in rich details with a beautiful color palette and mark making, I am also obsessed with David Roberts whimsical characters, stunning compositions, and wonderful fun details. Their creative voices are my inspiration.

Thanks so much to Netsanet for talking to me about this book! The Gabi That Girma Wore publishes from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers next week on February 27!

Special thanks to Netsanet and Little, Brown for use of these images!

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